By Alicia Mies and Peter Maroulis
HOUSTON — Lucy Leon, glasses perched on her head, shuffles papers with the biographical information of roughly 40 children of the most powerful women in the tech industry.
Leon’s workspace is the ballroom of a major hotel near the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest gathering of female technologists in the world. She is responsible for children aged 6 to 12.
Inside the room, kids sit on stylish chairs, chatting and tittering, their legs bouncing freely. Some play with the assortment of board games, art supplies and coloring books, while others run around and play tackle with supervisors.
Temporary day care centers like Leon’s give working mothers and fathers the ability to freely do their jobs without having to worry about their children. Without services like this, mothers attending Grace Hopper would need to hover at the edge of conference sessions, standing as close to the exit as possible in the case that their child starts crying.
Grace Hopper is progressive in that it was one of the first tech conferences to offer child care services, starting in 2011. The lack of daycare at many conferences significantly limits many female professionals who would have to face a costly babysitting bill on top of the price of a conference ticket. Sometimes, they likely decide not to attend.
Childcare costs in the U.S. have risen 168 percent over the last quarter-century, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, draining an increasing share of American incomes. And as data from the Pew Research Center indicate that rising costs are pushing more women to stay at home instead of working, childcare workers and preschool teachers work for stagnant, “unlivable wages.” In 2013, the mean salary for U.S. childcare workers was just $21,490 – and their wages have grown by no more than 1 percent in the last decade, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment at UC Berkeley.
Just across a skybridge from the hotel, some 14,000 women in technology mill around the floor of Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. Over four days, a tireless ritual of presentations, networking and keynote speeches occupy the adults. The progeny of Grace Hopper invitees spend their time with Leon and her nearly two dozen staffers playing games, watching movies and making connections of their own.
Leon is a childcare professional who hails from Seattle, but has put down roots in California. She holds the role of program manager for Corporate Kids’ Events and attends 20 events a year all across the country. She’s sitting at a table in the ballroom with tiger-stripe wallpaper and 20-foot ceilings, which feels like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The tea tables and Mad Hatter-esque commotion of happy children amplifies this sentiment.
Though she has travelled extensively for work, Leon finds herself at Grace Hopper for the first time. The conference, she says, is magical.
“It’s an important thing to acknowledge – women in tech,” she says. “It was really cool to see. There were booths for women of color and women from all around the world. Tech is kind of an industry driven by men, and so women in it – and women of color – are great to have.”
Indeed, women rarely hold more than a third of technology jobs at U.S. firms, and their numbers dwindle on the higher rungs of the corporate ladder. A 2015 report by law firm Fenwick & West LLP showed women held just 11 percent of executive roles at Silicon Valley companies.
Leon pauses and turns her head, looking over at a young girl, who plays with a toy.
“This job different because the kids are always different,” Leon says. “It’s like being in the ocean – you float one way, you float the other.”
She pauses as the girl runs past the table, shrieking as she is playfully chased a staff member.
“I guess that’s a weird analogy,” Leon says. “But a school of fish is gonna come and swim through and then maybe an octopus comes next. You never know who you’re going to get and that keeps it interesting and fresh and fun.”
Local staffers like Kenisya Carey are the ones who make sure things run smoothly. She steps away from one crib to comfort another baby – the daughter of Octavia Howell, the corporate vice president of network security operations at New York Life Insurance Company.
Howell just finished maternity leave before she came to the Grace Hopper conference with her 11-week-old daughter. The trip comes with great meaning – Howell wanted to attend Grace Hopper, an event she saw as exclusive to top leaders in tech, since she was in college.
“For people like me, if there were no childcare services, I’d have to pass up this opportunity and I’d probably be at home right now very upset,” she says.
Before having her children, Howell would stay at work until 2 a.m. – even after the lights and air conditioning shut off – to finish projects. Now, she is is thinking about her kids — does she need to pick them up across town at 5 p.m.? When does the daycare close? What’s for dinner tonight?
“You have a different purpose than someone who doesn’t have kids,” Howell says. “You look at someone who doesn’t have children, and they may do things a little different than you do because you’re very strategic. You know that you have someone to get home to.”
She said her company has been incredibly supportive of her during and after her pregnancy. Although many women, especially executives, may be hesitant to tell senior executives that they are pregnant, Howell had no such reservations.
“I told them like literally the day. I found out on Sunday, I told them on Monday,” Howell says. “They rearranged my schedule. I was supposed to go to India in April and they were like, ‘Well, you’re not going to India!’ They were very accommodating.”
Aarthi Mohan, a project manager at Expedia, also attends Grace Hopper for the first time.
“Oh my God, I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when I saw that Grace Hopper had this childcare option,” she says. “I saw that before I actually booked my tickets this year.”
Mohan has two children who pine to participate in the interview. Her son, 7, is a bundle of energy, chasing around the room indefatigably, while her daughter, 3, is more quiet, tugging at Mohan’s shirt curiously.
“My son is already very interested in computer science,” Mohan says. “In fact, when I told him I was going to Grace Hopper, he told me that Grace Hopper was the person who found a moth in the system and that’s how ‘bugs’ got their names.”
Mohan’s success in the technology industry came with several challenges – at a different company, she was laid off when became pregnant.
“When I started showing, the contract magically ended,” she said, “and that happened to all my friends – and when my babies were about 6 months, 7 months old, I would get calls back from the same employers who dropped me when I was pregnant.”
Fortunately, Mohan has found a caring home at Expedia, a company with more flexibility towards her situation. She becomes noticeably restless as the clock continues ticking, itching to get back to her children.
“For my daughter especially, I want [my kids] to see that you can have it all and you don’t have to compromise anything,” she says. “I want to be that inspiration for her and I want my son to see the kind of woman he should really look forward to in the future.”